Lights flicker to life across the once abandoned warehouse at 621 East 11th Street. “Embrace chaos, practice patience,” one of the core values of Downside Up Inc. marks the back wall. To the left, shelves of toys, movies, and games reach the ceiling. To the right, small houses, hand-crafted with love and carefully decorated with lights, line the space. The room vibrates as it waits for kids and family members to bring it to life with the “power of play,” another core value of this program’s work.
Downside Up was founded by Theresa Nix ’93 and her husband Rob after their son Everett was born with Down Syndrome. They felt lost and lonely as new parents because their situation didn’t fit the everyday experience of many families. As they began reaching out for support, they found other families with children with disabilities experiencing the same feelings. Thus, began the journey of Downside Up!
Since its start 8 years ago, the program has grown its resources and offers events such as family camps, retreats, open play dates, and more. Camp Wakawalu, a summer family camp held at Camp Lookout, attracts around 150 campers each year.
In January 2020, Downside Up turned that empty warehouse into Training Wheels, an activity and learning space for all abilities. Having a physical location for their work has provided Nix with more opportunities to minister to these families in need.
For now, the space provides day camps for PreK-4th graders of all abilities, preschool mornings, open playdates, family events, community connections, and socials for all ages. However, expansion is in the works. Nix and her volunteers are currently working on renovations outside for an outdoor playground and a community garden.
“We are very unique in what we do, and there aren’t any [other places in Chattanooga] like our program. Having a space for kids to come and play or moms to meet other moms going through the same thing is such a blessing,” said Nix.
Family camps are extremely important to both Nix and the families in the program. When you have a child in need of extra care, a lot of attention and devotion often gets shifted. Family camps provide a space where the whole family can relax and have some fun together.
Nix commented that families who participate in Downside Up’s ministries are so grateful for a space to be known and cared for. “Parents cry all the time because they finally found a place where they can build community and feel welcome.”
The holiday season provides unique opportunities for Nix and her volunteers to bring encouragement opportunities to families. Winter camps are always exciting because sometimes it is the only time families can find quality care or a moment to breathe over the holiday season. “Cookies with Santa,” a holiday favorite, is an extended period that families can sit, chat, and get pictures with Santa without the hustle and bustle of a long line.
“Having your kids take a picture with Santa never seems like a big deal or anything special, but for some families [“Cookies with Santa”] is the only time they can have the opportunity to get that picture,” said Nix.
The holidays also mark the end of a season of giving. Nix expressed her deep gratitude for the support from the many people in her life, including the friends she has developed through Covenant College and the community she has found in the greater Chattanooga area. However, spreading the word about their ministry is still an ongoing task.
“It's always neat to see how our supporters as well as the community wrap their arms around us and continue to understand the importance of our work. But, getting our word out is also a big deal. Programs fill up really quickly because the people that we serve want to support everything, but we are still trying to get the word out to new families,” commented Nix.
This year, Downside Up is spreading holiday cheer with these upcoming events such as their Family Holiday Workshop: Nature Arts & Crafts on Saturday, Dec. 10th, Cookies with Santa on Saturday, Dec. 17th, and the Holiday Camp from Dec. 19th-21st (for ages PreK-4th grade).
The Rudolph Run 5K & Family Fun Run will be hosted at Baylor School on December 11th at 1pm. (To volunteer for this event follow this link!) All proceeds from this event will go to support Downside Up and the work they do.
Thank you, Theresa, for your continual work in providing spaces where children with disabilities and their families can grow and thrive! May this holiday season radiate creativity, growth, and learning, and may the Lord continue to provide for and bless your mission to embrace chaos and practice patience.